Turning rocks into stars

It was my Barmitzvah parasha, Vayetze, last week. Shakespeare knowingly asked “what’s in a name?” and we could just as well ask “what’s in a parasha?” A Jewish name is significant in that it conveys ones essence and potential. The parasha of the week of one’s birth is important in that it transmits something of one’s substance and capacity.

I was given the name of my father Isaac’s brother Raphael killed as a child during the Shoah; I carry within me my dad’s history, my uncle’s unlived life and the burden of the Shoah. It’s however a liberating burden in that it (the name) has taught me how to carry the baggage. The name Raphael refers to God’s healing and his healing angel. Being a healer of sorts — a communal rabbi is after all in Victor Frankl’s phrase a ‘doctor of soul’, I’ve learned that it’s more important to turn one’s focus outside, to others, rather than to become too preoccupied with oneself; to turn one’s passion towards compassion.

From my parasha, from Jacob, I’ve learned how to dream, but also how to do. He is after all, the man who not only lifts huge boulders but also who transforms rocks into stars. He is down-to-earth, but a man of vision; his ladder is firmly rooted on the earth but edges into eternity; “planted on the ground” but “reaching the heavens” (Genesis 28:12). Leadership needs to be both inspirational and practical. I love Jacob for his humanity and his human-ness. He is all too human, struggling with his frailty and literally his demons (see Ibid 32:25). He is primarily a people-person, a connector, a family man, a founder of the “house of Israel” בית ישראל.

I love Yaakov for his complexity; he’s no simple black-and-white cardboard figure or what EM Foster called a ‘flat character’. He is introduced as an individual who “lives in the tents” (Ibid 25:27). Note the plural “tents” not one tent, because Jacob straddles different worlds. He is at home in the Jewish tent, his primary focus, but he is equally at home in the wider world as a negotiator and deal maker, (his wily father-in-law is a good teacher in this respect). And so my focus as a rabbi and leader is to firstly champion our Jewish causes and concerns, to deepen Jewish identity, to connect Jews to their vital history and legacy, to stand up for Israel, to defend Orthodox tradition. After all, as the storied Hillel so famously said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me”, if we don’t look after other Jews who will? But then, “If I’m only for myself…what am I?”. I must move into the wider tents of Australian and global society, ponder on the rights of Zimbabweans, speak on the plight of refugees from Myanmar to Manus Island, do something about the condition of our environment, address and improve our multicultural and multi-faith Melbourne, be sensitive to the rights of GLBTI individuals, be alert to the wounded and the dying.

I don’t do this because I’m a trendy lefty, or populist, but because I believe it’s the role of a Jewish leader to comment and to challenge whenever there is an ethical issue or moral dilemma, to ‘challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged’. It’s part of our tradition; our patriarchs and prophets were great social activists and their concerns went way beyond their own private tents. They spoke to their society, they were passionate about justice, they cared about human suffering and social issues, they were global citizens. Talking Torah is talking to the issues of today, connecting to the people of today

My Judaism like Jacob’s is one of relevance to our lives and one that pays acute attention to the four H’s: Halacha, Humanity, Humility and Humour. I prefer bridges to tunnels, ladders to fences… Like Jacob I hope to continue to build bridges into our Jewish Community as well as the wider one, to erect ladders, to strive upwards.

We only get one chance to respond to life, to rise to its exacting and marvellous challenges to fill this narrow space, this גשר צר מאד this tenuous bridge we’re given with as much love, learning, compassion, charity, humour and humanity, courage and clarity as we can.

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist and they have three children – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.